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In a decision applauded by the disability community, the U.S Supreme Court recently ruled that disabled students are entitled under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to necessary "non-medical" services, irrespective of cost to the school district. The landmark decision pushed forward the education rights of all students who are disabled, regardless of the nature of the disability.
The case focused on a school-aged boy, Garret Frey, who is quadriplegic, and needs a trained aide to provide him with extensive assistance with personal needs while he is in school. Garret breathes only with the help of a ventilator. Before his case reached the Supreme Court, lower courts in Iowa, where Garret lives, ruled that the school district was in fact required to provide a trained aide.
The attorneys for Garret Frey argued that the school district must provide Garrett with a full time aide under IDEA, because IDEA guarantees a "free appropriate public education" to students with disabilities. The Act also states that in addition to special education, school districts, must pay for "related services." In order for Garret to get the "free, appropriate public education" he is entitled to under the law, they argued, he needs the "related services" of a full-time aide.
The school district where Garret attends school argued that because the services that he needs are medical in nature, payment for the services are the sole responsibility of Garret’s parents. They based their argument on the language of IDEA. The law states that school districts have to pay for related services, however it further states that school districts "need not pay for ‘medical services.’" The school district claimed that the services Garret required would be considered "medical services" and would not therefore be covered under IDEA.
The decision in this case hinged upon the definition of a "medical service." If a full time aide is considered a medical service, then Garret would have no recourse under IDEA. The school district wanted to use a "multifactor test" to decide if providing the aide would be a medical service. They argued that any services a student needs should be considered in terms of a variety of factors, including expense, rather than in terms of who was providing that service. Under this standard, the more expensive the service, the more likely it would be viewed as "medical," even if it is not provided by a medical professional. The school district also pointed out that providing a full time aide is a large financial burden and that many smaller school districts would have a hard time meeting these financial obligations.
On March 3, 1999, the Supreme Court by a 7 to 2 vote ruled that as long as a student’s physical needs can be met by someone who is not a doctor, the required services do not fall within the excluded "medical services" category.
In reaching this conclusion, Justice Stevens relied on a 1984 ruling that laid out a two-part standard for deciding what is a "related service" under IDEA. Under this standard, it was up to the parent of the child with a disability to further show that the care was necessary to enable their child to attend class, and to further show that the care could be provided by someone other than a doctor. Justice Stevens felt that Garrett Frey met this standard and therefore the school district was responsible for paying for the cost of the aid under IDEA.
Judith E. Heumann, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, reacting to the opinion stated, " we believe students like Garrett should receive the services necessary to ensure access to an appropriate education. That’s what the law guarantees, and now the courts have made that clear."
Taking into account that without the services of the aide, Garret Frey would not be able to attend school, Justice Stevens said: "This case is about whether meaningful access to the public schools will be assured." The Court felt their role in the case was to interpret existing law without regard to whether that law presented the school district with a legitimate financial concern. The Court decided that those with disabilities should have access to the school system regardless of the financial burden on the school districts.
This case represents a milestone for children with mental and physical disabilities. The decision has great meaning for any child that requires special education and more importantly has opened the door to those who have had major barriers to overcome in order to receive a quality education. Many children with mental illness have been denied educational opportunities by school districts reticent to address or pay for the multiple services they require. With this decision, it will be more difficult for school systems to deny services to children with severe mental illnesses and other severe disabilities.
There are concerns however that the Supreme Court’s decision could result in legislative proposals in Congress to amend IDEA by limiting the obligations of school districts to pay for "related services" under IDEA. NAMI will closely monitor developments on Capitol Hill and inform you about any pending legislative proposals.